There seems to be a strange new disease spreading around the world. People are getting stuck in the past in mostly happy memories. They are straddling the line between now and then. Although the disease ends in death, the infected seem to go willingly. The epidemiologist seeks the answers to this viral mystery while she is falling in love and yet trying not to get infected.
I was among the first group of epidemiologists to be called. Wearing the white contamination suit—what has since become a second skin—I walked into Patient Zero’s quarantined hospital room, slipped into the sterilized tent surrounding her bed, and saw a beautiful, distracted, wide-eyed contentedness.
Patient Zero was a seventy-two-year-old woman who had been polishing a coffee table when she heard children loudly singing an old Russian lullaby she hadn’t heard since her own childhood. It was called “Bayu Bayushki Bayu.” It sounded so perfect that she first walked to the radio, thinking that somehow it had turned on by itself. But her radio was off. She unplugged it for good measure.
“Do you hear that singing?” she asked her cat, playfully.
The cat, often skittish, seemed undisturbed.
She walked out onto the balcony of her apartment on the sixteenth floor. It was winter but she wore no coat. This was too urgent. She expected a children’s chorus of some sort. She didn’t live far from an elementary school. In fact, she could see the playground from the balcony. She thought perhaps this was part of some kind of multi-cultural presentation.
But no. The playground was empty.
The song had terrifying lyrics. In her hospital bed, she sang them for us and then translated.
Sleep, sleep, sleep
Don’t lie too close to the edge of the bed
Or little gray wolf will come
And grab you by the flank,
Drag you into the woods
Underneath the willow root.
But she added, “The song didn’t scare me as a child. It was a comfort. I can’t explain it but, while in my living room, I could reach out and hold my mother’s hand. My mother has been dead for a long time.”
My own mother would die two months later. There would be no funeral. My father and I were only allowed to talk on the phone; the virus was making travel dangerous. I wanted to ask my father what had come to my mother from the past but he was too broken by grief. He could barely speak.
After Patient Zero’s moment on the balcony, she put on her coat and walked to the elementary school. The school was closed. She hadn’t known that it was a holiday.
This was when she realized that the song was very loud—consistently so. It grew no louder and no fainter. So she wasn’t moving closer or farther away from its source.
She looked up at the gray sky and knew that the song was in her head. “And suddenly,” she said, “I could smell Voronezh, the city I grew up in—sugar refineries, meat factories, flour and groats mills, chemical and aluminum plants. It smelled of work.” She remembered a town gathering that she’d attended with her mother in Lenin Square, near the statue of Lenin giving a speech, much like the one in St. Petersburg except that he’s not positioned on the turret of an armored car.
On the walk home it began to snow. People were bustling past her. She felt unsteady, and her upper body jagged a little to the left.
A man reached out and held her up. She gripped his coat sleeve, but again she felt her mother’s hand in hers, not the man’s coat sleeve at all.
“You okay?” he asked, a few snowflakes glistening in his dark beard.
She started to tell him what was wrong, but then stopped because she knew it sounded crazy. She shook her head. “I’ll be fine. I’m close to home.” She could make out her own mother’s voice now, singing along with the children.
The man gently released her and she walked on.
Once inside her apartment, she got into bed while still completely dressed, shoes and all. She was sure something was wrong with her and, if she had to call 911, she didn’t want the crew to find her in her nightgown. She wondered if she’d inhaled too much wood polish. She worried she was having a stroke. She sang the song loudly as if, by joining it, she would give it permission to leave her. Eventually, she felt tired and hoarse and fell asleep.
When she woke up the next morning, the song was still there. In fact, she was sure that she’d dreamed with the song in a constant loop.
She ate breakfast, but her oatmeal tasted like the red currant kissel her mother always made for her birthdays. Her coffee was more like sbiten, sweet with honey.
She called a taxi and went to her doctor. Sitting on his examination table, she could barely hear the doctor. “I am living in two worlds at once!” she shouted over the noise in her head. “I see you in the present. But I’m hearing the past, smelling, tasting, and touching the past.”
All of this was explicable. Mental diplopia was rare, and Patient Zero’s case might have been extreme, but it was not unheard of. J. Hughlings Jackson was discussing it in the late 1800s. And, in the 1900s, Wilder Penfield was able to create experiential hallucinations by probing the cerebral cortex of fully conscious patients with electrical stimulation during surgery. An acclaimed neurologist wrote of two such cases in a book titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, published in 1985.
Although the doctor sent the patient to a neurologist, a blood test revealed a foreign trace of a virus that neither had seen before. This trace mimicked certain strains of biological warfare. So that’s why, when I was called in with a wave of specialists, we were all suited up for contamination.
But what enemy would contaminate us with the effect of, well, what? Overbearing nostalgia? Incontinent reminiscence?
All in all, Patient Zero wanted to be left alone and enjoy the past. Her mother had died young, and this time with her—through touch and taste and sound and smell—was precious.
Then one day, a small explosive aneurysm—sparked by a pathology we didn’t understand and couldn’t avoid—went off in her brain. She died quickly and painlessly.
Within three weeks, all the attending doctors, nurses, and staff who had come into contact with her before we started wearing protective suits were also dead, having gone down a similar path—listening to old pop songs, tasting candy, petting guinea pigs, smelling marshmallows burning in campfires. One man got to lose his virginity in the backseat of a Subaru hatchback in all ways except visually. One woman listened to her parents argue in a distant room while sitting—forgotten—in a bubble bath. Some ran on clipped fields, replaying soccer matches so lifelike they sweated through their shirts, breathless, their hearts pounding. Some overheard the news and could pinpoint the exact day and year they were stuck in. Meanwhile, all were also interactive in the present, though distractedly so.
The bearded man on the street who’d asked the woman if she was okay was dead. Her neighbor who’d talked to her one morning at the mailboxes was dead. Her doorman, dead.
The taxi driver was still alive. But he died by another exposure within a month.
Her cat died, too.
And it was said that the cat, who’d been put in a shelter, had become disoriented, with a dreamy-eyed stare, before his end.
That shelter is now empty, as is the elementary school, the woman’s apartment building, the hospital, most of the city, other cities, continents . . .
I was falling in love at the time.
Unlike predictions of suicides during a super virus of this magnitude, suicides were far lower than projected. The deaths were that beautiful; people opted to die on the virus’s terms and timetable.
Except not all the mental diplopiacs’ experiences were objectively beautiful. (There is no such thing as objective beauty, of course, but I have no time to mince around.) Some were forced to relive a day of war or horror or trauma. One woman reported the repetitive noise of a bomb going off in a railway station, the feel of glass splintering her skin, the taste and smell of smoke and burning flesh. But, even then, she seemed to believe—especially the more times it returned—that there was some underlying joy. She’d been fifteen and she’d been in love with a boy. And she felt youth and love in that small, brief moment.
Duly noted: So many reported hearing their mothers singing to them, in some form or another, that we speculated that perhaps a voice singing an infant and/or child to sleep infiltrates our wiring so deeply that it permeates the brain.
His name was Oliver, the man I was in love with. We were scared, of course. Our falling in love was a kind of extra terror. We’d both been in love before, with other people, briefly or damningly or both. So the better our love felt, the harder it was to face the fact that it wouldn’t last. We wouldn’t last, as individuals.
Or did that make it better?
Lying in bed together, within the confines of one of the major survival bunkers, having taken off our white hazmat suits—which was illegal but privately everyone was doing it—we talked about these things.
“It’s the eternal return,” Oliver said. “Did you take philosophy in college?”
“I speak pidgin philosophy,” I said. “Enough to cover my ass at a cocktail party. Nietzsche?” We were still sweaty and lightly breathless from sex.
“Right.” He lay back on the pillow, cupping the back of his head with one hand, exposing the pale underside of his cocked arm. How vulnerable that skin, I thought. So many things were striking me those days—about the body, life, humanity, and our fragility was chief among them. “The eternal return, everything has always happened and will keep happening.”
“Every second recurring, constantly,” I said. “My philosophy professor was young and really good-looking. I took two of his classes, back to back. Or should I say that I’m still taking every moment of his class?”
“Exactly. So what if our brains have tapped into an eternal return moment and are reliving it, on some plane of consciousness?”
“There’s a neurological explanation for the mental diplopia,” I said, ready to launch into ganglia and such.
“Yes, yes. I know, but what if the neurological explanation is only the neurological explanation?”
“Like seeing God in the aura produced by a migraine that is neurologically explicable is still seeing God. The arguments are all there, on every side.” I didn’t like to bring up God. For a while, people had tried to line up the dead bodies in the streets, taping their IDs to their shirts, so they could be retrieved by family members. But that couldn’t last.
“Do you ever want to walk out into it?” he asked me, staring up at the ceiling.
And it felt like a man asking if I believed in marriage. Not a proposal but just seeing where I stood on the whole thing.
“It’s crossed my mind.”
I didn’t get a call when my father died. I assumed he was dead. There weren’t people left to make calls. I loved my father. I wondered if I walked out into it if I would hear his voice again, reading stories aloud from the children’s book with the bright blue chicken wearing a crown on the cover. I longed for his voice. He had the gentleness of a pediatrician, though he practiced law. He rode his bike a lot and forgot to uncuff his pant leg and would walk around like that for hours.
“My father is wandering around with his pant leg cuffed,” I whispered to Oliver as he was falling asleep.
“My father is forever frying sausage links,” he whispered back.
I thought of all the patients who’d died but more often than all the rest, I remembered Patient Zero, her tremulous but sweet voice filling the small, sterilized tent, our faces staring out at her behind the shields of our masks. My mother sang to me at night, too.
Later, in our suits, taking our turn watering and monitoring seedlings in the greenhouse, I said, “I’m not worried about God. I’m worried about someone else out there who might want us dead.”
People whispered about this, even the most intellectual among us. That trace of biological warfare was undeniably real.
“Sartre spent the Second World War in a German prison camp where he read Heidegger,” Oliver said. “He came out of it and wrote a great lecture.”
“What’s that mean? Do you think we’ll come out of this at all?”
“We’re still free,” he said. “We’re condemned to it, as the existentialists would put it.”
“So,” I said, “you don’t think this kind of life—locked up in our suits and our bunker forever—has to feel like prison.”
“It’s only a prison if you say it’s a prison,” he said.
But the comment seemed to worry him. He stopped and looked around. Through his mask, I could see that he was scared.
I reached out and wanted to hold his hand like Patient Zero, feeling her mother’s hand holding hers. Of course we couldn’t feel each other through the thick-fingered gloves of our suits.
He realized I was worried and then he smiled. “Absurdity will save us.”
The bunker was connected to the outside via access to surveillance around the world. We still saw people occasionally, and a few animals, too. The Audubon Osprey Cam on Hog Island, Maine, for example, had a view of an empty osprey nest but also a bit of the Muscongus Bay in the background. A teenage boy, his hair grown bushy, was seen paddling by in a small boat. That was three months ago. Some humans and animals had to be immune to the virus. We occasionally saw a band of them in our footage, but the sightings were very rare and often disturbing.
Once, a man drove his truck across an empty parking lot into a pole—a suicide attempt. He survived, crawled out of the truck, and wrote, in blood, a woman’s name. Elaine. Then he signed it with a bloody handprint.
Two squirrels were captured on tape scurrying across the floors of the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. In the background was “The Triumph of David,” who was proudly parading Goliath’s giant decapitated head on a stick.
I watched the squirrels—with their fluid lines, their brushstroke tails—as many times as I could before feeling embarrassed by my need. Then I walked away.
We went to a few weddings in the bunker. We called the brides and grooms bold fuckers.
Eventually someone got pregnant. And this felt truly insane. A small attempt at socially regulatory government erupted—some for birth, some against. But, like Oliver and me, the majority of voices said, Why not? You can’t stop life. We are life.
“We have a greenhouse,” I told Oliver. “She’s just a human greenhouse.”
The pregnant woman replaced the front of her contamination suit with a pleated section and kept going.
I thought, Will I be a greenhouse?
I thought, Will Oliver suggest such a thing?
It was rare to see people’s skin—so rare that Oliver and I watched each other shower.
The body took on an incalculable divinity because, like the soul, it went unseen.
And if the body is as divine as the soul, does the soul still hold sway as an idea?
If all the bodies outside the bunker give way to dust, what to make of all the loosed souls?
The pregnant woman was working with an engineer to make a series of very small but increasingly larger contamination suits for the baby.
“I see it as a prison,” Oliver said to me one night. We’d already decided not to make love. We’d watched the footage of the boy paddling across Muscongus Bay too many times. Once, it had been hopeful and made us happy, but tonight, like a sharp blow, we felt hollow afterward.
“Then it is a prison.” I sat on the edge of the bed, my suit puffing around me. “But what if we’re the baby in the pregnant woman’s belly?”
“That baby has no consciousness.” Oliver’s suit seemed baggier, as if he were shrinking within it.
“No consciousness of the outside world, what lies beyond,” I said. “But maybe we don’t have consciousness, either. Maybe we’ll be born into something else.”
He said, “No. I don’t think so. Out there, it’s only death.”
“But that’s always true of birth. All things eventually give way to mortality. Birth is just the first necessary step toward death.”
“That’s very old-school German of you,” he said, and then he walked to the blinds and fiddled with them. Opening and shutting. “You know what I missed today?”
That night, I thought of Patient Zero’s translation of “Bayu Bayushki Bayu.”
Sleep sleep sleep
Don’t lie too close to the edge of the bed
Or little gray wolf will come
And grab you by the flank,
Drag you into the woods
Underneath the willow root.
And then I worked hard to remember the tune.
It came to me and I hummed it.
I thought, This will not last.
The first to spot them was the twelve-year-old son of two CDC workers. The boy’s name was Elliot Pegg. I’d seen him very little. He didn’t play much with the other kids, rarely showed up at communal meals, and now I knew why. He was obsessed with monitoring as many surveillance cameras, worldwide, as possible.
After the sighting, he rushed to his parents, who gathered some of the leaders who’d emerged, and they held a meeting.
Clive Waltham, who was in charge and resisting democracy “just until all this mess blows over,” now stood behind the podium in the theater to address the entire community. “We’ve heard that we’re not alone. We have intelligence that there are others among us, possibly those who are responsible for our destruction, in order to take over.”
He then introduced Elliot Pegg and the boy walked quickly to the podium, pulling the mic down close to his mouth. He wore braces and I wondered, absurdly, if there was an orthodontist among us. Would the boy spend the rest of his life in braces?
“I was watching the monitors,” the boy said, “because I like to, in case you were wondering. And I saw a strange creature on the monitor located near 35.169 latitude and 136.906 longitude.”
The crowd was silent. Did this kid see the world in latitude and longitude? He read our bewildered expressions and added, “At Sunshine Sakae in Japan. A mall,” he added. “With a Ferris wheel.”
This made a little more sense—a boy, sunshine, a mall, a Ferris wheel. The room was relieved but still all were still silent.
“I’m going to show the footage now, but I think that they’re here to see what the place looks like—without us. You know, like a head of hair without the lice.”
Elliot didn’t seem to realize that he’d called us lice. He just started fiddling with the remote to start up the tape. Clive, however, walked up quickly and covered the microphone. He thanked Elliot, though it was a bit muffled, and excused him.
Elliot headed offstage, but not without looking back over his shoulder first and waving to his parents, as if he’d just successfully recited JFK’s “Don’t ask what your country can do for you . . .” speech.
Then he disappeared behind the curtain.
The video footage was crisp and clear. The person who’d blown it up had enhanced the film enough that it wasn’t grainy.
They looked human, at first. They loped down the aisles of the Sunshine Sakae, a mix of races and ethnicities; their arms swung at their sides and their very human eyes darted and drifted and lingered.
But when they stopped, their bodies shivered. When they reached for something from a shelf—food items in cans that I didn’t recognize—their arms reached out as fast as frog tongues catching flies. In fact, the gestures seemed over before they began.
And then I felt alone, more alone than I ever had in my life. The room was filled with people, all those respirators purring along, and Oliver was beside me, standing so close that I could feel the pressure of his suit against mine, bubble to bubble.
But the thought had crossed my mind that this would happen again—this moment of me watching this foreign species at the Sunshine Sakae—and it would keep happening. However, this one singular moment was the only one I knew of. I was trapped to have only it, to be conscious of only it.
And this was my life, rising up—net-empty.
I was the sole person having this thought in this room.
And when I died, as I knew I would—the final bit of lice eradicated, maybe, while the one last nit was roiling in the pregnant woman’s belly inside her maternity contamination suit—I would be within a memory and I would be aware of the present. And existing in the combined center of that Venn diagram, I would be absolutely alone.
Elliot Pegg’s work was no longer so solitary and desperate. A whole team of people kept constant watch now and they couldn’t look at any livestream without eventually seeing one of the foreign species, if they had even a bit of whale-watching patience. They were sometimes solitary, more often in groups. They seemed to know each other and be able to read each other’s actions, moving quietly and yet constantly around each other. They were tireless and seemingly efficient, though we didn’t know their overall goal.
We had decisions to make.
Some believed we should venture out to greet them.
Others said we should prepare our riot gear and tap our armory.
There were rumors of secret groups forming different coalitions.
One night, I couldn’t sleep. I sat on the edge of the bed. Oliver was curled away from me. We’d started sleeping in our suits again, like when we’d first arrived.
I said, “There was this woman in college, Elli Truth Bartok—and we assumed the middle name was one she’d made up. She tried to start a humane treatment of insects movement to make sure all the insects we used in the lab were euthanized painlessly, like cricket dissections in introductory bio classes. She wanted us to use inhaled anesthetics. Basically, fog in a terrarium.”
This was the kind of weird extremism that Oliver would usually enjoy making fun of, but he didn’t chime in.
“Like the DDT trucks that kids used to run after in the 1950s before people figured out it was all pretty deadly.” I’d seen pictures in magazines and old newsreels. It struck me as odd that these things were lodged in my mind—probably Oliver’s, too—but how did they get there?
Oliver didn’t say anything. I assumed he was asleep but I liked hearing my voice, the company of it, so I kept talking. “What if the species euthanized as many of us as they could? As sweetly as possible because something awful and painful is coming?” I kept going, “What if they’re like kids with nets collecting butterflies . . .”
In my mind’s eye, I saw the species as children now—and realized there were never children in the groups we spotted on film. I imagined them running through beautiful wheat-swaying fields. “Why have they been so gentle? Why did they allow the dying their eternal returns?”
I felt my mind wandering toward a rocky cliff, but I kept going. “What if the butterflies aren’t our bodies, but our minds? Our consciousness?”
I envisioned a corkboard. Instead of butterflies pinned to it, there were small wisps—gray, diaphanous, and fluttering lightly; it was a child’s bedroom and a nearby window was open. “What if they don’t care about our bodies but are keeping our souls?”
“Did Elli Truth Bartok believe that insects had souls?” His voice startled me, not only because I thought he’d been asleep but because he seemed earnest. He seemed to want to know that someone—even a stranger who was most likely dead—had once believed in the souls of insects.
I lay down next to him, my face mask pressed against the back of his suit. “I never asked her.”
At dinner one night, we heard that three people were missing. They’d gone out in order to make contact. They’d been gone for a while and others had covered for them. (This was an enormous breach. There would be repercussions for those who’d covered for them.)
But what was important was that they’d been sending messages back and the messages had stopped.
I found myself stripping off my suit. I got in the shower. I wanted the water to needle my skin. I wanted to know that every inch of my body was alive.
Oliver didn’t come in to watch or join me. I assumed he was just trying to process the new information. I certainly was.
But when I stepped out of the bathroom, I found him sitting on the edge of the bed. His contamination suit was baggier than ever. His helmet was still locked into place.
And I recognized the look on his face—beautiful, distracted, wide-eyed contentedness.
I touched his mask with my fingers.
His head snapped up. “What?” he asked, as if nothing were wrong. But his voice was just a little too loud, his eyes just a bit pinched, as if he were concentrating very hard to remain here with me in this room.
“How long has it been going on?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Just a few hours. Those fuckers broke the seal on their way out. I’m sure of it. The virus is probably just riding on the wind now and it made its way in. All the way in.”
My fingers tingled. My neck felt flush with blood. But I wasn’t afraid. “What’s your eternal return?” I asked.
He smiled. “I’m in the yard with my dog, Chipper. I can hear my older brother practicing the trumpet through the open windows. He was really good.” He looked at me through the three-layer face shield. “Did I ever tell you that he toured in Europe with a jazz band when he was only nineteen? He gave it up to go into finance.” His brother had died of the virus very early on. I could see that Oliver was crying, his face contorted with a mix of joy and loss. “He was so fucking good. Jesus.”
I reached up and put my hand under the double storm flap that protected the gas-tight zipper closure that ran down his back. He turned quickly and grabbed my naked wrist with his gloved hand. “No.”
“Who knew how tender the apocalypse would be?” I said.
“I’m condemned to my freedom,” I said. “And this is a moment I’d like to return to eternally.”
And—hello, you, reader, other—what did I do?
I undressed him.
“Mental Diplopia” copyright © 2017 by Julianna Baggott
Art copyright © 2017 by Ashley Mackenzie